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Ars Poetica

In celebration of Ars Poetica, Rachel Eliza Griffiths' exhibition of photographs of Cave Canem faculty and fellows,  the Poetry Society of America is presenting a selection of her portraits, each one accompanied by a poem from a Cave Canem poet she has captured on film.

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Rachel Eliza Griffiths is also the author of two chapbooks, Turn of Heaven (Paris Boulevard Press) and According to Beauty (Paris Boulevard Press) and two forthcoming full-length collections of poetry, Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books, 2010) and Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2011).

As the poet Nikky Finney remarks in her essay reproduced below "Because of her gifted, mindful pressing private eye on us, we discover what we could never completely see before, all around us, could never completely find before, right there in full shadow and slated sun, not even with our own two eyes: All of every bit of who we are." It is an exhibition not to be missed.

 

Portrait of Nikky Finney by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

 

The Private Eye of Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Photographer & Poet

 

"The eye is an organ of vision quite sensitive to light. Eyes are either of a pair of hollow structures located in bony sockets of a skull. They function together or independently."
                                                              
The Free Dictionary

In her self-portrait there are two of her; two bodies with the same face, one poet, one photographer, dressed in different outfits, sitting side by side, in a stylized Frida Kahlo pose. The two Rachel's extend left and right arm into the heart of the frame, while left and right hand flutter into its low center, touching lightly, one atop the other. Rachel-left cradles a tiny manual typewriter in her lap, while Rachel-right gentles the boxy frame of a baby (perhaps) Rolleiflex SLR with crank advance. Two sets of eyes stare wide and clear back into the single eye of the camera. Both Rachel's snapped this self-portrait.

In the world of photography & poetry—eyes rule. In the photography & poetry world of Rachel Eliza Griffiths—eyes reign.

In one of Rachel Eliza Griffiths' photographs, the long, woven, dread-wool hair, of modern America's finest living writer, falls down her back. We see no face, yet still she is pulled to the public's eye by the keen exacting eye of the photographer. In another frame, a woman's bare black feet, rest against the cool of a galvanized washtub. Her toes, clearly, have eyes for the curves of the tin thanks to the angle of the shot. In another moment a steel blue whale jumps, leaps, into an unknown bay, as if keeping his eyes peeled for modern whalers that the conscious photographer must have whispered might be coming. Then, there are the three Black women sequestered, positioned, perched in white like graceful egrets, up to their eyes in the limbs of a hundred year old tree. In another frame a chewing chimpanzee lays back, resting easy, lazy on its side, somehow still able to see, cousin-to-cousin, eye-to-eye, with the camera-holding seer. Then there is the arresting photo of two nipples, standing at attention, in slanted, refracted low light, making sheep eyes back at the lens. Another photograph catches a pair of Black hands, clasped and lathered, the skin of the hands speckled in wet sparkling dirt. The owner of the hands is not in the frame, yet we know by way of the photographer's precision, that he is looking us dead in the eye. And then there are the two-hundred eyes of the one hundred poets, fractured, off center, Leadbelly-ed, amorphous, quartered, halved, Pulitzer-ed, twitching, with hat on, with hat off, bent, sunshiny, rhythmic, Petrarchanesque, some, set in free verse, all, resembling, saying, promising, finally, there is far more to us than meets the naked uncaring eye.

For one hundred years it has been the human holding the camera, our chosen picture-taker, who has pulled us forward, from horrific past to sweet kodachrome of future. For one hundred years, it has been the photographer, our chosen picture-taker, choosing to turn us over to posterity with all deliberate care, turning a blind eye to all that they said we were, in order to embrace all that she sees we are.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths is our sleuth. She is our private eye with camera, unafraid to see us, snap us, hold us, give never-ending chase, to us, as we live and breathe in our most natural skin(s). Inside her camera our many secrets open. We; human, whale, butterfly, envelope of sky, graveyard, Lincoln Memorial, frigid Obama Inauguration day, fedora, nipple, clavicle, who appear by way of her eye and camera, revel in her eye on us. Because of her gifted, mindful pressing private eye on us, we discover what we could never completely see before, all around us, could never completely find before, right there in full shadow and slated sun, not even with our own two eyes: All of every bit of who we are.

                                                                                              — Nikky Finney